Sofia Juma. She has almost the same name as my six-year old daughter and she looks and sounds not that much older - a very young 15. She's sitting with eight others outside Uteshu health centre in the Shinyanga region of rural Tanzania. We're shaded from the afternoon sun in a small pavilion surrounded by the characteristic red dirt that I'm still washing out of my clothes weeks later. Sofia speaks quiet and halting Swahili as she tells me about her two week old baby and the emergency caesarean that saved them both.
The work that brought me along these dusty roads is vocational. It leaves me struggling to know which box to tick on the 'occupation' section of every form I ever fill in. I'm yet to think of a snappy way to say that I am a reproductive rights campaigner who believes that promoting a human rights agenda will improve women's experiences of pregnancy and birth - and through that advance the women's rights movement more broadly.
Mothers and babies of Mbiki village with Rebecca Schiller (from left: Joanne, Zena, Pili and Rebecca), copyright Joseph Were
Day-to-day I find myself talking to midwives and doctors here in the UK about respectful maternity care, writing about abortion rights, miscarriage, birth stories and IVF, working one-to-one with women who've had traumatic births and looking at the global picture by meeting women like Sofia. My work is across the spectrum of reproductive rights but I believe it's important to tackle these issues from all angles and in all countries if we are to be successful in making change happen.
With her underdeveloped pelvis (often caused by childhood malnourishment) Sofia is probably only alive today because of AMREF Health Africa - Africa's leading health charity, saving and transforming lives in the poorest and most marginalised communities in over 30 countries.Their projects in the area have upgraded small health centres serving thousands of birthing women each year. These now offer ultrasounds, perform emergency caesareans, perform lifesaving newborn resuscitation and in some cases ambulances to transfer women in distress. They also promote respectful and woman-centred care for all.
The women of Tanzania are at the very sharpest end of a global problem around women's rights in birth. Without these projects (currently only available in a limited number of sites) their essential right to an adequate standard of healthcare is nowhere near being met.
But this work doesn't start and stop with simply providing services. Disrespectful and even abusive care is a huge problem in developing countries with women too frightened to attend hospital facilities because of how they fear they will be treated there. And women in the developing world also face a range of complex challenges when trying to enjoy their basic reproductive rights.
Vulnerable women in the UK can face £6000 bills for their maternity care so sometimes avoid antenatal or even birth care so as not to be pursued by bailiffs. In the US women like Purvi Patel have been imprisoned for feticide for their miscarriages while others have served time for attempting suicide while pregnant. In England, Scotland and Wales abortion has still not been decriminalised while in Ireland women face a very real threat of prosecution if they try and take control of their reproductive futures and must travel to England and pay for a termination.
It's easy to be complacent about our reproductive rights if we are lucky enough never to experience how vulnerable women are when pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood come in to the frame. But once I glimpsed how precarious my status as a full, equal member of society was I had to work for change. As Director of Birthrights (the human rights in childbirth charity) I focus on what we can do closer to home. As a writer and guest of Amref I got to see just how far we've come and the very long road ahead.
So this Mother's Day I'll find it hard to be interested in cards and flowers. Working in the UK and glimpsing life in Tanzania makes me even more certain that protecting and promoting women's rights in birth is crucial. Not just for mothers but for all women - everywhere. Every three minutes a new mother in Africa dies. That's why this Mother's Day, Amref Health Africa are asking people to show their solidarity with African mothers, whilst championing their own. Join the campaign and post a photo with your mum using the hashtag #savemothersday and help spread the message of positive change. Make a donation at savemothersday.co.uk. Follow Amref on twitter: @Amref_UK.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email email@example.com with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about.
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